Jody Stephenson (right), founder of SitterTree, gives sitter Khadijah Grier a high-five. Grier was recently ranked a Top 10 Sitter. CONTRIBUTED BY ROSETREE PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo: Rosetree Photography
Photo: Rosetree Photography

Paying off college debt the old-fashioned way — baby-sitting

You’ve seen those flyers with tear-offs advertising employment opportunities posted on community boards and college campuses. You’ve probably even ripped a number from one or two hoping the job’s yours.

A lot of people do, but who, pray tell, would rip the entire flyer down to knock out the competition and guarantee themselves a steady flow of baby-sitting jobs?

Jody Stephenson, that’s who.

Stephenson is a lovely young woman with a sweet face, but it might not be a good idea to mess with her. Since that day nearly 20 years ago, when she was a starving sophomore at Oglethorpe University, she has almost single-handedly changed the way college students acquire baby-sitting jobs and, get this, pay down tuition and other school-related expenses.

Under her tutelage, metro Atlanta students raked in nearly $1 million in baby-sitting wages last year alone.

I don’t do this a lot, but I laughed out loud when Stephenson, who grew up on a Sandusky, Ohio, farm, told me how she pulled that off.

It started in 2000 while she was a sophomore at Oglethorpe University trying to figure out how to pay tuition on a $6.50-an-hour work-study program. It just wasn’t cutting it, so when she saw a flyer with tear-off phone numbers for a baby-sitting job that was paying twice that, Stephenson took the whole thing.

In fact, she took down every flyer for baby-sitting on campus.

The devil didn’t make her do that. Her competitive spirit demanded it, she explained with a straight face.

“I started baby-sitting for a mother and then her sister and her neighbors, and eventually I started having my friends baby-sit,” she said. “Moms would call into my dorm landline and leave a voicemail with job details, and I’d schedule a sitter for them.”

About a year later, Stephenson wrote a three-page letter to those parents and sitters inviting them to use her services. For $40 a year, she’d find them a quality baby sitter, and for every job she found for a sitter, they’d owe her $5.

“I remember holding my first $40 check thinking all I had to do was ask,” she said as a big smile crawled across her face.

Jody Stephenson is helping metro Atlanta students and young professionals pay off debt the old-fashioned way — baby-sitting. CONTRIBUTED BY ROSETREE PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo: Rosetree Photography

By the time Stephenson graduated in 2003, 150 families and 100 students, 10% of Oglethorpe’s campus, had signed up for her services.

She called it The Playgroup, and even after Stephenson left Atlanta for Malawi to work for a nonprofit, Oglethorpe students kept the venture going.

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In 2010, Stephenson returned to work for her first client, Katy Barksdale, as executive director for the nonprofit Rockdale Foundation.

The Playgroup continued but only as a side hustle with Stephenson taking calls and assigning jobs from her cellphone while on trips to Sierra Leone, until one day she and a friend from church had another idea.

In 2014, she launched SitterTree, a baby sitter request and scheduling tool that connects busy parents with the perfect sitters, all college students and young professionals.

Using technology, they facilitate high-quality relationships like those Stephenson remembered growing up in rural Ohio, where everyone knew everyone and people could be trusted.

»RELATED: Need a babysitter? Here are the top sitters in metro Atlanta from SitterTree

SitterTree founder Jody Stephenson (far right), pictured with SitterTree members Rachel Lee, Bre Taylor, Sarabeth Jackson and Rebecca Alvarez. CONTRIBUTED BY ROSETREE PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo: Rosetree Photography

Both families and sitters go through an intensive screening process, and from all indications, Stephenson knows how to pick ‘em.

Since 2016, 97% of her sitters have received a five-star rating from moms.

“We’re pretty proud of that,” she said.

Since its launch in October 2014, SitterTree is on 20 metro Atlanta and Athens campuses and serves over 20 Atlanta churches on Sunday mornings and at special events. In addition to earning $14 to $17 an hour, sitters can choose from about 1,500 jobs a month that fit their class or career schedules.

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Recently SitterTree hit a major milestone: booking 25,000 baby-sitting assignments.

To celebrate, it released its inaugural list of Atlanta’s Top 10 Sitters, considered family favorites for their professionalism, positive attitude and penchant for not canceling on them.

Khadijah Grier, a 21-year-old junior at Clark Atlanta University, was among them.

Grier was working at a Brookhaven Stein Mart when a co-worker told her about SitterTree. Not only was the pay better, it would offer her the flexibility she needed.

“I love kids, so it was just perfect,” she said.

By the end of one year, Grier had earned $15,000 toward her housing, but let’s be clear. SitterTree is about far more than money.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

At its core, it is preparing college students like Grier for the future. Every year, a select group of sitters participate in an eight-month internship program that focuses on developing 21st-century job skills, such as teamwork, collaboration, inclusivity, problem-solving, and conflict resolution.

“Our sitters are the heart of the SitterTree community, and we want to see each one thrive, both personally and professionally,” Stephenson said.

You can argue with how she’s been able to do that if you want, but I won’t. If Jody Stephenson says she can, I believe she can.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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